U.S. security faulted by panel

Commission questions U.S. ability to repel variety of attacks

July 08, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The United States is ill-prepared to combat a growing and "grave" threat from proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons around the world, a high-level government commission concludes.

Nightmare scenarios include a disgruntled Russian scientist selling nuclear-weapons fuel to Iran, or anthrax being released in a subway at rush hour, sending 6,000 people to emergency rooms.

"These events have not taken place. But they could," warns the panel, chaired by former director of Central Intelligence John M. Deutch. The commission will officially release its report next week, but a draft was obtained by The Sun.

Particularly alarming is what the panel calls the continuing economic meltdown in Russia.

It cites seven instances since 1992 in which weapons-usable fissile materials were stolen. Russia doesn't know how much material it has, and it is increasingly vulnerable because of power outages, unpaid guards and sporadic violence, the panel says.

"The No. 1 threat that needs attention is the continued disintegration of Russia as a civil society," one commission member said, This member ranked the Russian problem as high, if not higher, than the threat to the United States from ballistic missiles that was cited by a previous panel headed by former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Other dangers are posed by China's export of missiles and dangerous technology, efforts by more than a dozen terrorist groups to get nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, North Korea and other hostile states with the ability to manufacture such weapons, and instability in the Middle East and South and East Asia.

The problem is made ever more complex by the growth of technology that can be used both commercially and in weapons, according to the commission.

But the federal government's ability to respond to this threat is hamstrung by a series of policy and bureaucratic obstacles, the panel says.

"The commission finds that the U.S. Government is not effectively organized to combat proliferation," it says in a summary of the 140-plus page report.

The 18-month-old panel was created by Congress to assess how the government is dealing with the proliferation threat and to make recommendations.

Few of the many government agencies involved in monitoring proliferation escape criticism. One shared fault is inadequate technology. The system to acquire it is "broken," the panel said in a section on the Defense Department.

The Persian Gulf war vividly exposed the danger to U.S. forces from weapons of mass destruction, although Iraq never actually tapped its arsenal of chemical and biological poisons.

Yet nearly nine years later, and after billions of dollars have been spent on technology, U.S. forces in the field are still sorely lacking the ability to detect chemical and biological weapons, the commission found.

"We still can detect on a handful of the thousands of possible chemical and biological threats, and those few that can be detected require the use of many sensors that have limited range," the report says.

Efforts to prevent leakage of technology and talent from the former Soviet Union have been hampered by overlapping and confused assistance programs, the report says.

For instance, the Commerce Department has a program to help Russia build up its export controls, yet has to rely on the State Department for money, which takes up to 11 months to be transferred.

In the Defense Department, the report found that responsibilities for combating proliferation "are too diffuse." The panel is also worried about erosion in the department's expertise on nuclear weapons. Keeping a knowledgeable cadre of specialists is " critical to our knowledge of other states' nuclear capabilities," it said.

The commission said it was "in sympathy" with a recent report by the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board that are harshly critical of the Energy Department's security lapses at the nation's nuclear-weapons laboratories.

The intelligence community and law enforcement came in for some of the most detailed criticism. Discussing intelligence, it said, "There is no better reminder of the need for improvement than the unexpected Indian nuclear test in May 1998."

Further on, the report hints at the danger of injecting political bias into the intelligence process, saying "biased intelligence courts policy failure, and said "good intelligence and the rough and tumble of the open political process do not mix."

It also said much clearer standards are needed for deciding when proliferation is occurring. It proposed thresholds similar to those used in the justice system, such as probable cause or "preponderance of evidence."

The report said there is an urgent need for the intelligence community to develop better methods for tracking chemical and biological weapons.

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